Brain Pickings

Anaïs Nin on Why Understanding the Individual is the Key to Understanding Mass Movements

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“Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) was one of the most prolific and dedicated diarists in modern literary history, her journals a treasure trove of insight on life, literature, society, and human nature. From the The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us Nin’s illustrated insights on life, this poignant mediation on Paris vs. New York, and Henry Miller’s wisdom on giving vs. receiving — comes this thoughtful reflection on why understanding the masses, in sociology and in politics, must be preceded by understanding the triumphs and tragedies of the individual:

The general obsession with observing only historical or sociological movements, and not a particular human being (which is considered such righteousness here [in America]) is as mistaken as a doctor who does not take an interest in a particular case. Every particular case is an experience that can be valuable to the understanding of the illness.

There is an opacity in individual relationships, and an insistence that the writer make the relation of the particular to the whole which makes for a kind of farsightedness. I believe in just the opposite. Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood, and this would give a far greater understanding of mass movements and sociology.

Also, this indifference to the individual, total lack of interest in intimate knowledge of the isolated, unique human being, atrophies human reactions and humanism. Too much social consciousness and not a bit of insight into human beings.

As soon as you speak in psychological terms (applying understanding of one to the many is not the task of the novelist but of the historian) people act as if you had a lack of interest in the wider currents of the history of man. In other words, they feel able to study masses and consider this more virtuous, assign of a vaster concept than relating to one person. This makes them …. inadequate in relationships, in friendships, in psychological understanding.

A couple of pages later, Nin ties this to political leadership in a way that, in an election year, rings more urgent than ever:

My lack of faith in the men who lead us is that they do not recognize the irrational in men, they have no insight, and whoever does not recognize the personal, individual drama of man cannot lead them.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is sublime in its entirety.

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